In Ancient Egypt, Severed Hands Were Spoils of War

Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who was not involved in the project, said that the new analysis “raises interesting questions about the origins of traditions showing dominance over enemies, not only in Egypt, but throughout the ancient world.”

The ancient Egyptians are venerated for their achievements in art, architecture, and technology. But their brutal tradition of maiming criminals and adversaries predates the Hyksos by more than a millennium. Perjurers were sometimes disciplined by slicing off their ears and noses; insurgents, by impaling the bodies at the ribs until death. The Narmer Palette, a ceremonial engraving that dates to the time of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt about 5,000 years ago, shows the beheading and mutilation of what were apparently rival chieftains.

On one side of the palette, King Narmer holds a mace aloft in his right hand while with his left he yanks a kneeling captive by the hair. “The smiting motif would have been a public display of King Narmer’s power over his enemy, smashing the skull to bloody bits,” Dr. Cooney said.

On the reverse side, the king inspects rows of bound, decapitated corpses with their heads between their legs, and their castrated penises atop their heads. “Dismemberment was anathema to the ancient Egyptians, who wanted their bodies whole for a materialized afterlife existence,” Dr. Cooney said.

A relief in the mortuary temple of Rameses III, at Medinet Habu, shows the pharaoh standing on a balcony after a victory not far from heaps of his enemies’ severed phalluses (12,312, according to one translation of zealous army scribes) and hands (24,625). In the temple of Amun at Karnak, a chronicle of a 13th century B.C. battle details prisoners being brought back to the pharaoh Merneptah with “donkeys before them, laden with uncircumcised penises of the Land of Libya, with the hands of [every] foreign land that was with them, as fish in baskets.” If the tally of fatalities is to be believed, the Egyptians collected the penises of 6,359 uncircumcised enemy dead and the hands of 2,362 circumcised enemies. “The stink must have been awful, and thus the ‘fish in baskets’ comment,” Dr. Cooney said.

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